LAKE WHATCOM, Wash. -- This lakenear Bellingham is is a lot of things; beautiful, mountainous, mostly quiet and very large.
But while it's a boating paradise, a place to build a home, it's also a state designated runway...for seaplanes.
Sky Terry does not own a seaplane and he is not a pilot. Butas a former search and rescue volunteer and firefighter turned nurse he's been assembling a plan to save lives using airplanes that land on water.
You've got a ton of lakes, you've got a ton of riverways, a ton of oceanfront, that's not going to go anywhere, says Terry.
The last ten years have seen massive disasters like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In Washingtonhe believes we have to be able to get the injured to hospitals after a big earthquake when bridges are knocked out and transportation is difficult. Airportscould also be knocked out. When time is critical, he says seaplanes could be the only way to reach people on islands and hard to reach areas along the water. Demand for help will be high, and traditional emergency responders like the Coast Guard will be slammed.
We have aircraft that can become totally non land dependent, says Terry.
And Terry has people's attention.
Twice now withvolunteer pilots who are interested in helping out, he has tested how patients on backboards could be fit into seaplanes.Patients whoare otherwise ambulatory, could sit up in seats and be flown from disaster sitesfor treatment.
Lake Whatcom would be what Terry calls a base lake. It's fairly sheltered, and a beach area along the western shore is already picked out and promises to serve nicely. This is where volunteers who were able to bring their planes would gather. From here, they would be dispatched by an air boss to other locations to fly people out. And at the base, fuel could be flown in.
Patients could then be flown to another base lake like Lake Washington and there the injured transported to Seattle Area hospitals and trauma centers.
It's a start, but there's a lotof details to work out.
Stephen Ratzlaffowns a plane and is president of the Washington Seaplane Pilots' Association.The organization has been involved in the planning for years, ashas Kenmore Air which is the largest seaplane airline in the country.
We have the ability to organize the pilots that have planes that can help in this situation. says Ratzlaff.
But recently the pilots and Terry became worried that seaplanes could be banned from lake Whatcom after the State Department of Ecology recently denied a shoreline permit to build a new private sea-plane dock. They see it as a signal, a threat and effectivelystarts limiting the number of seaplanes on the lake, particularly if more docks are also denied. That denial is currently being appealed.
The Department of Ecology says the reason is over transporting invasive species, specifically zebra mussles...it has been an ongoing issue for years, primarily with boats. Ecology has review authority after Whatcom County initially approved the permit.
We saw that as something that as something that could have long term ramifications. adds Ratzlaff.
A ban is what the pilot's fear, and it's been tried before as recently as 2004 through an initiative process.
The City of Bellingham supported the denial of the dock permit, worriedthat zebra mussels could clog the intakes for Bellingham's water supply. But the city is not seeking a ban.
Some other lakes around the statedo bar seaplanes. Noise is often cited as the reason. And while the pilots don't expect a ban tokeep themoff Lake Whatcom during an emergency, restrictions could limit their ability to practice.
At thestate level, the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) has been working with the seaplane pilots to prevent transferring invasive species including zebra mussel larvae. It would be up to DFW to enforce any ban of watercraft or aircraft on the lake based on an animal issue and a department spokesman was clear to point out that no ban from his agency is in the works.